This week, at the National Post in Toronto as part of the build up to the publication of Savage Love, I am writing a series of very short essays on, well, writing. Mostly about writing sentences. Here is a teaser for the first; it was just published this morning.
English was my worst subject (next to Health) in high school right through to my second year of university when I stopped taking English. I’d fallen afoul of the empty rule syndrome. Don’t use the pronoun “I” in an essay; don’t begin sentences with “but” or “because”; write paragraphs to the topic sentence-body text-conclusion pattern (even if it bores you to death to say the same thing three times); vary sentence structure. The trouble with these rules is that no one told me why any of them would be especially useful.
Vary sentence structure was a rule I puzzled over for years. No one explained grammar to me well enough to make a connection. At first I thought, well, I can write long and short sentences, something like Hemingway. Then I practiced emphatic placement of important material (at the beginning or the end of the sentence, I was told) and inversion (writing the sentence backwards — kind of fun). None of this got me anywhere because I could not connect the spirit of a sentence, what emotional and factual impact I intended, with the idea of sentence structure.
I puzzled through instruction books. I discovered the wonderful distinctions between simple, compound and complex sentences and the even more mysterious cumulative and periodic sentences. I practiced writing periodic sentences until I was blue in the face without actually being able to discover how that made them interesting for readers. They weren’t very interesting to me. And my stories did not seem any better for having good topic sentence paragraphs, long and short sentences, and a scattering of lovely periodic sentences.
The rules were still inanimate, void of life. The nexus of intention and form escaped me. Above all the whole idea that you had to know what you were going to write before you wrote it was like a lock on my soul. It made writing drudgery.
Read the rest here: Douglas Glover: Building sentences